Sometimes referred to as antisocial personality disorder, sociopathic personality disorder (SPD) is a mental illness that’s categorized as a cluster B disorder. These are characterized by “difficulties controlling emotions and behavior” as well as behaviors that others may consider to be “dramatic, emotional, or erratic”. SPD symptoms exist on a spectrum and can vary from individual to individual. However, they often manifest as actions that reflect little to no regard or consideration for social norms, including manipulating other people, displaying aggression, or breaking rules and laws. Read on for more information about this disorder.
Recognizing Sociopathic Personality Disorder
Only a qualified mental health professional can make an accurate diagnosis of serious mental health conditions like this. That said, there are certain early warning signs and symptoms that may indicate a person is experiencing SPD. If you suspect that you or a loved one may have any other mental health conditions, it’s typically wise to consult with a licensed professional. Signs and symptoms of SPD may include:
- Manipulating or exploiting others
- Exhibiting antisocial behavior or a disregard for social norms
- An inability to control anger
- Engaging in criminal behavior
- Struggling to meet work or financial responsibilities
- A lack of guilt, remorse, or the ability to learn from mistakes
- Difficulty sustaining healthy, long-term relationships
What Causes Sociopathic Personality Disorder?
For instance, studies suggest that genetic factors and individual physiology may play a role in the development of sociopathic tendencies. Another study found that a family history of antisocial behavior, specifically in a parent, was a strong predictor for conduct issues to persist from childhood into adolescence. Some experts believe that factors like inherited genes aren’t sure predictors of SPD or related disorders. Instead, they can most likely be thought of as potential contributors. They can also change over time with the child’s physical growth, environmental conditions, and other external factors, which means that some or all sociopathic tendencies that may be present in a person in childhood can either increase, decrease, or cease completely depending on how their environment and circumstances may change as time goes on.
How SPD Is Diagnosed
SPD can only be diagnosed in people aged 18 years and older (after they have displayed a history of behavior that meets the DSM-5 criteria.) Before the age of 18, a child displaying these signs may be diagnosed with a conduct disorder. Those who present with a childhood conduct disorder will often show similar signs to adults experiencing SPD, including threatening behavior, physical aggression, lying, and a disregard for rules or laws. Causes for conduct disorders can vary, but one common cause is child abuse. One study found that children who experience abuse have a 50% chance of displaying conduct problems. In addition, another study found that up to 50% of children who have been diagnosed with a conduct disorder end up developing antisocial personality disorder later in life.
As with many types of personality disorders, SPD can be difficult to diagnose—in part because an individual who has it is likely to deny it and resist evaluation or treatment. They may believe their antisocial personality or behavior is a reaction to the perceived negative qualities of others rather than an indication of a mental health issue. For example, someone with sociopathic personality disorder may show a repetitive pattern of violence or aggressive behavior, such as consistently engaging in physical altercations with others without cause. The person may then blame others for this violent behavior, citing a non-existent threat or insult as the inciting incident. Another example of this denial could relate to manipulation. A person with SPD may threaten self-harm or claim they plan on attempting suicide in order to manipulate someone or get their attention. When caught in a lie, they may blame the person for not paying attention to their needs.
Even in cases where someone may not be telling the truth, suicide should be taken seriously. If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts or talking about suicide, it's important to reach out immediately. Dial 988 to reach the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which is available 24/7.
People with antisocial personality disorder who do seek treatment often do so because of another issue, such as substance use problems, depression, or relationship conflict. Or, the individual may be mandated to undergo evaluation and treatment by court order as part of sentencing for a crime. It’s under these circumstances that a psychologist may observe the signs of SPD and investigate further in order to come to a diagnosis.
The process of evaluating someone for a disorder like SPD must be done by a qualified mental health professional. It will typically include a physical examination, cognitive testing, interviews with family or loved ones, and/or a review of the patient’s medical and personal history. The psychologist will also compare the individual’s symptoms with the criteria for an SPD diagnosis in the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). To be diagnosed with sociopathic personality disorder according to the DSM-5, the patient must meet the following criteria:
- A pattern of disregarding the rights of others since age 15, which can take the form of impulsive behavior, violations of the law, repeated deceit—including for pleasure or profit, aggressiveness and a tendency to engage in physical fights, irresponsibility, and a lack of remorse
- A history of behavioral issues before age 15 as well
- Being at least 18 years of age
- Confirmation that the above behaviors cannot be attributed to schizophrenia or bipolar disorder
Once their assessments are complete, the provider may determine a diagnosis and will then suggest an appropriate treatment plan.
How SPD Is Treated
Although SPD isn’t curable, a combination of psychotherapy and medication may help an individual manage their symptoms, enabling them to function more effectively within society and personal relationships. Medications such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, or mood stabilizers may be suggested, potentially in addition to some form of psychotherapeutic treatment.
Little evidence exists to show that traditional cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) methods are effective in treating SPD, although studies do suggest that it can be effective for treating other personality disorders. However, an individual may still benefit from getting therapeutic treatment for their symptoms, such as anger or addiction issues.
Finally, it’s important to note that childhood intervention for those displaying signs of antisocial personality disorder may help in certain cases, according to research. Unlike some other mental health disorders, the intensity of symptoms from a personality disorder like SPD often decreases as the individual ages. In some cases, an individual who displayed troubling behavior in their youth—like harming animals or breaking the law for personal gain, for instance—may outgrow these tendencies on their own because of physiological changes, the realization of consequences, and social stigma for their behavior, or a combination of both.
The Role Of Online Therapy
An individual who has a suspected personality disorder like SPD should typically be evaluated in person by a qualified clinician. If that provider recommends therapy to help the person manage symptoms of diagnosed SPD, such as anger issues or substance use problems, they may choose to pursue it in person or online depending on their unique situation. Research suggests that in-person and virtual therapy can offer similar benefits in many cases; a licensed provider can impart whether they believe a particular individual may benefit from one format over the other. That said, the availability of online therapy can be useful for those who may have difficulty traveling to and from appointments.
Finally, in-person or online therapy may also be helpful for family or friends of a person who has a disorder like SPD since coping with their often difficult personality traits and behaviors can be challenging. A therapist can provide support in cases like these. If you’re interested in pursuing online therapy, a platform like BetterHelp is one option. You can fill out a brief questionnaire and get matched with a licensed therapist whom you can speak to via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing.
What is a sociopathic personality type?
A sociopathic personality is often described by its clinical name, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). It is characterized by an ongoing pattern of behaviors that disregard and violate the rights of others. It is a lifelong condition that is resistant to treatment. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Model of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V), a person must engage in at least three of the following behaviors to be diagnosed with ASPD:
- Failure to engage in lawful behavior by stealing, hurting others, or committing other crimes.
- Repeated lying, deception, or conning others for personal gain.
- Reckless impulsivity.
- Persistent irritability and aggressiveness, often resulting in violence.
- Reckless disregard for the safety of others.
- Failure to demonstrate responsibility, such as inconsistent work behavior or failure to honor financial obligations.
- Lack of remorse or empathy for their actions or their impact on others.
Generally, sociopaths are remorseless, ruthless, devoid of empathy, and completely absorbed by their self-interest. They often have the same traits with those diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder and may have an inflated self-image. Sociopaths are often considered to be manipulative and disingenuous, displaying whatever emotion they believe will help them achieve their goals.
What personality disorder is associated with sociopaths?
Sociopaths are typically diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Those with ASPD are able to act witty and charming and may demonstrate an extensive ability to manipulate others into trusting them. They consistenty disregard the well-being of others, often lie, and are likely incapable of feeling guilt or remorse. ASPD is one of four Cluster B personality disorders, the others being borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic personality disorders.
The cause of ASPD is still under investigation. Genetic factors likely play a role, and many experts believe that traumatic events in childhood, like severe child abuse, may also contribute. Evidence also suggests that anatomical differences in the brain may contribute to sociopathic tendencies, most notably through a reduction of volume in the frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain responsible for inhibition and conscious behavioral control.
Those with ASPD often believe nothing is wrong with their behavior and rarely seek treatment. When those who meet the criteria for the diagnosis do receive treatment, their prognosis is generally poor. Evidence suggests that some psychotherapies may be beneficial, and medications may be useful for treating co-occurring disorders. However, those with ASPD often struggle to overcome their denial regarding the impact of their actions, which is an essential part of demonstrating remorse.
Can sociopaths cry?
Sociopaths can and do cry, but it is possible that their display of emotion may not be entirely legitimate. Sociopaths struggle to feel remorse and are known to manipulate others to achieve their goals. Some sociopaths can likely feel honest remorse at times, but it would be challenging to determine whether their remorse is genuine.
As a rule of thumb, if someone typically disregards the emotions of others and struggles to show empathy or compassion, their emotional displays should be taken with a grain of salt. It can be simple to exploit the kindness of others for personal gain, and those who frequently display antisocial behaviors may be more likely to do so. It may be worth taking time to plan ahead before having an emotionally charged conversation with such a person.
What are the 4 types of psychopaths?
The terms “sociopath” and “psychopath” are not officially recognized names for conditions, nor are they clinical diagnoses. However, they are sometimes used colloquially to describe individuals who exhibit behaviors characteristic of Cluster B personality disorders. Cluster B disorders are also called dramatic/erratic personality disorders. Although only one Cluster B disorder, antisocial personality disorder (ASPD), is heavily associated with sociopathy, each disorder in the category has some characteristics that overlap with ASPD.
The four cluster B personality disorders are:
- Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD). HPD is characterized by an obsession with attention and validation from others. Those with HPD often behave far more dramatically than the situation demands. They tend to be seen as superficial and exaggerated by those around them.
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). NPD is typically associated with over-inflated self-worth, grandiosity, and a disregard for others. If someone does not admire a person with NPD, they may react harshly or behave exploitatively. NPD is also typically associated with an extreme aversion to criticism and judgment.
- Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). BPD is often described as an unstable self-perception. Those with BPD oscillate between very good or bad moods but rarely exhibit neutral moods. They are often subject to “black and white thinking,” in which they can only perceive the extremes of a situation. Those with BPD may manipulate others into caring for them or remaining in their lives and may feel intense distress at the thought of abandonment.
- Antisocial Personality Disorder (ASPD). ASPD is the personality disorder most frequently described as a “sociopathic” personality type. People with ASPD feel little to no remorse or empathy. They typically disregard the emotions of others, lie, cheat, steal, and engage in other behaviors that harm others. They are likely prone to aggression and may use whatever means to achieve their goals, no matter how harmful.
Are sociopaths highly intelligent?
Despite their representation in modern media, sociopaths are not likely to be more intelligent than the average person. In fact, one study found that high intelligence decreased the likelihood of developing antisocial personality disorder by a small but significant amount. It is possible that the “genius criminal” archetype, a common trope in movies and television, may contribute to the impression that those who frequently engage in illegal behavior, cannot feel empathy, and disregard the rights of others are more likely to be intelligent.
Can a sociopath love their child?
Although those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder may be capable of caring and love to some degree, it is unlikely that they will be able to display typical or healthy signs of love to their child. Children require empathy, kindness, and compassion to develop appropriately.
Evidence suggests that children of those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder risk being deprived of a loving, nurturing environment and are less likely to receive the nurture play necessary for healthy development. In addition, children of sociopaths are also significantly more likely to develop developmental conditions that predict antisocial personality disorder, such as conduct disorder.
What are the 3 categories of personality disorders?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-V) recognizes ten personality disorders organized into three distinct categories: Cluster A, Cluster B, and Cluster C.
Cluster A personality disorders are known as “odd/eccentric” disorders. The category describes disorders that present with suspicious, reclusive, or bizarre behaviors. Cluster A includes the following conditions:
- Paranoid personality disorder.
- Schizoid personality disorder.
- Schizotypal personality disorder.
Cluster B personality disorders are known as “dramatic/erratic” disorders. They describe conditions that present with highly dramatic behaviors or behaviors that violate social norms. The condition that aligns with sociopathy, antisocial personality disorder, is a Cluster B disorder. Cluster B disorders include:
- Antisocial personality disorder.
- Narcissistic personality disorder.
- Histrionic personality disorder.
- Borderline personality disorder.
Cluster C personality disorders are known as “anxious/inhibited” disorders. They are characterized by abnormal feelings of anxiety, unusual fears, and restricted social relationships. Cluster C disorders include:
- Dependent personality disorder.
- Avoidant personality disorder.
- Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder.
Can a sociopath recognize that they are a sociopath?
A sociopath rarely recognizes their condition. Antisocial personality disorder is characterized by a disregard for the emotions of others. Without remorse or empathy, it is unlikely that a sociopath will see any problems with their actions. They may view them as justifiable pragmatism, or they may rationalize their actions by describing the ruthlessness of the world. In any case, it is extremely uncommon for a sociopath to acknowledge their behavior.
Are sociopaths born or made?
There is ongoing debate surrounding the exact cause of sociopathic tendencies. The current theories align with typical “nature vs. nurture” arguments common in medicine and psychology. There is evidence that suggests genetic factors play a significant role. Sociopathy likely has at least some heritable components, although no study has yet to identify genetic traits that are 100% predictive of antisocial personality disorder.
Similarly, evidence also suggests that environmental risk factors play a role. If someone has experienced traumatic events in childhood, such as child abuse or severe neglect, they have a much greater risk of developing antisocial personality disorder. Cruel or disordered parenting may also reinforce sociopathic tendencies by rewarding children for behaviors that violate social norms, significantly disrupting their brain development.
Finally, there is also evidence to suggest that anatomical differences in the brain may play a role. Researchers discovered that the area of the brain associated with controlling impulsivity and harmful behaviors was significantly smaller in those diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.
How to know if I am a psychopath?
Generally, sociopaths and psychopaths meet the diagnostic criteria for antisocial personality disorder. They disregard the emotions of others, lack empathy, lack remorse, and are generally solely focused on their own interests. In addition, they are also usually willing to manipulate others to get their way. They are often capable of displaying emotions that appear genuine but are only manufactured to help the person achieve a goal.
If you’re worried you may be exhibiting sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies, it is likely that seeking professional help offers the quickest path to clarity. Psychologists, psychiatrists, and therapists are qualified to diagnose antisocial personality disorder and evaluate other conditions with similar traits. No matter your diagnosis, or lack thereof, a mental health professional can likely help you increase your understanding and treat your symptoms.
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